Broadsheetgate

Published January 17, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

ON one of his trips to Karachi towards the middle of 2000, Pakistan’s ‘chief executive’ and army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf agreed to a meeting requested by one the country’s most prominent business figures known for his services, and close ties, to the military top brass.

The meeting, in the VVIP lounge of Karachi Airport, just before Gen Musharraf was to take off on his return flight by a special aircraft to Rawalpindi, had a one-point agenda. The business figure asked for the general’s help as he was being ‘unfairly hounded’ by NAB.

NAB, or the National Accountability Bureau, was set up soon after Musharraf’s October 1999 coup with the avowed task of rooting out corruption in the country and the repatriation of ‘looted’ national wealth in cases where it had been taken abroad.

Lt-Gen Syed Mohammad Amjad had been named the first NAB chairman. He belonged to a rare breed of officers. Very rare in recent decades. His colleagues and juniors talk of a man committed to principles and contemptuously divorced from any material considerations.

Even as a general, when rules allow the personal use of the staff car, Lt-Gen Amjad would visit friends in his personal, rickety old Suzuki Swift without the usual fanfare. He betrayed none of the proclivities many of his colleagues and successors in the military and NAB show/would show.

The competence that has underlined NAB and its actions has cost us dearly now and even in 2008.

This was the profile of the man Gen Musharraf would need to talk to in order get NAB to lay off the seemingly servile billionaire, who was said to have had his share of skeletons in the cupboard. Musharraf told him ‘not to worry’, shook hands, boarded his plane and took off.

One account, which could not be verified independently, suggested Gen Musharraf contacted Lt-Gen Amjad as he was in the lounge and asked him to ‘go easy’ on the businessman. It isn’t clear whether there was any connection between this and Amjad’s exit from NAB, but a few months later he was gone.

Given what the officers who served alongside Amjad on his various postings say about him, it wouldn’t be surprising if Musharraf’s intervention prompted his decision. It would not fit into his scheme of things to ‘go easy’ on someone he considered unclean.

This was the upside. The downside was that the ‘asset recovery agreement’ NAB concluded with Broadsheet of the Isle of Man, reportedly without getting it vetted by the law ministry, after the chairman was satisfied it would deliver and Musharraf agreed, had lacunae.

This was at the centre of the Broadsheet award of some $21 million plus legal expenses, interests, etc, announced by the London Court of International Arbitration where the firm, which is in liquidation, took NAB and the government of Pakistan to claim more than half a billion dollars.

Pakistan moved the high court for a ‘quantum reduction’ but lost the case and Broadsheet liquidator then went into the ‘enforcement’ mode and some $28m were taken out of the Pakistan High Commission account, which, experts say, does not constitute the final settlement.

The issue needs to be settled quickly because the outstanding amount of the award will incur hundreds of thousands of pounds in interest payments in a matter of months.

The competence that has underlined NAB and its actions has cost us dearly now and even in 2008 when the wrong Broadsheet, ie one registered by Jerry James in Denver, Colorado, was paid $1.5m by the legal expert representing NAB without ascertaining the antecedents of the beneficiary. James had sold the original Broadsheet, Isle of Man, after financial problems. Any possibility of retrieving that payment died with James’s suicide in Paris.

Bizarrely, the agreement NAB concluded with Broadsheet in 2000 and rescinded in 2003, apparently without having a keen legal eye go over the wording, is costing Pakistan millions of dollars some two decades later and not bringing back looted wealth.

It is still not in the public domain why the agreement was rescinded in 2003. The only plausible explanation would be that, by then, Nawaz Sharif and family were out of the picture and in exile. Also, the 2002 elections had been held and, despite his security services machinations, Musharraf’s surrogate party fell short of a majority.

This forced Musharraf to compromise on accountability as he moved to secure a change in the loyalties of some ‘corrupt’ PPP politicians who formed the ‘PPP Patriots’ and supported his candidate for prime minister. In short, Musharraf’s political ambitions spelt an end to any move against ‘plunderers of the national wealth’.

Even if there were other reasons for the agreement rescission, it was handled with such incompetence that it has cost the country dearly. But having read a letter written by the lawyers of Broadsheet LLC (in liquidation) to the lawyers of NAB and the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ one gets the impression that incompetence is not our sole domain, if that makes you feel any better.

This is a letter dated March 21, 2019, but refers to events supposed to have taken place in the ‘late summer of 2019’ and ‘late 2019’. It also suggests that Imran Khan was prime minister in July 2018 when he was not.

This letter, the contents of which were regurgitated by Kaveh Moussavi, the Broadsheet CEO before it went into liquidation, in several TV interviews aired or accessible in Pakistan, and its chronological anomalies were not raised by any of the anchors interviewing Mr Moussavi.

It is clear Mr Moussavi is trying hard to get another agreement with Pakistan. He can’t be faulted for pushing things in his interest. His demand, that the detailed judgement of UK judge Sir Anthony Evans is published by the Pakistan government, is one with merit.

It can potentially demonstrate why a process of accountability, which was supposed to return allegedly looted wealth to the national coffers, ended up costing the exchequer so many millions. It may also show the way to avoid such embarrassing setbacks in future.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2021

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